Bilateral ties not only continue to be multifaceted but have also gone through a silent evolution

In the past few months, there have been a number of high-profile interactions between India and Sri Lanka. Of note was the visit in December 2021 of the Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and that of Foreign Minister GL Peiris in February 2022. Much of the interaction can be sceptically viewed from the narrow perspective of the ongoing economic distress that Sri Lanka is facing. But economy is only the current crisis, which of course needs a lot of external sympathy and understanding that India as the closest and pronounced neighbour has been extending, and will continue to do.

Upon closer scrutiny, it is quite evident that bilateral ties not only continue to be multifaceted but have also gone through a silent evolution. The global pandemic first, followed by the current economic challenges facing Sri Lanka, have paved the way for the two nations to shift gears in bilateral ties, and move forward, further and faster. It is in this context that Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr S Jaishankar's three-day visit (March 28-30, 2022) to Sri Lanka needs to be seen. The visit also had a multilateral component as Dr Jaishankar participated in the BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in Colombo on March 29.

Deconstructing the EAM’s Visit

Most of the past interactions between the two neighbours have been overshadowed by one issue or the other. They include the Tamil ethnic question, fishermen’s dispute and the ‘China factor’. The official Indian media handout at the end of the first day of the visit referred to a host of points of engagement, including but not limited to the US $2.5- billion economic assistance that India has extended, the virtual inauguration of the Jaffna Cultural Centre, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, and MoU on Hybrid-Power Projects in three islands off northern Jaffna Peninsula.

Of note were the EAM’s meetings with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, all three brothers, and also Foreign Minister, Prof G L Peiris, the host. The meetings mostly covered economic issues, but barring the Finance Minister, the rest also discussed other issues of bilateral interest and concern. In particular, President Gotabaya briefed Dr Jaishankar about the progress made in his talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), on the decades-old ethnic issue and attendant concerns of the Tamil community.

Later on, Dr Jaishankar had a scheduled meeting with representatives of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by octogenarian parliamentarian R Sampanthan. As local media reports quoted TNA participants in the talks, Dr Jaishankar pointed out how it was for the first time that both the Tamil delegation and the Sri Lankan government representatives spoke in the same vein, including on details of what had transpired at their talks. He reportedly recorded it as a positive development in itself, and hoped for substantive discussions on specific issues, including power-devolution and political solution, to move on the same lines.

The EAM also met Sri Lankan Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Douglas Devananda, who is also an ethnic Tamil, and discussed, among other things, the outcomes of the fifth official-level Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting, held on the virtual mode, on 25 March, on the eve of the ministerial visit.

The Indian media handout highlighted the priority that the two Governments accorded to the well-being, safety and security of their fishermen in the high seas. This is significant for the shared concerns in the shared maritime space, going beyond bilateral issues. The latter from a Sri Lankan perspective, including that of the nation’s Tamil fishermen, is about Indian fishers from southern Tamil Nadu and Karaikal enclave of the Union Territory of Puducherry, destroying the latter’s catch and also fishing grounds, through indiscriminate deployment of bottom-trawlers and gears that are banned in that country.

During the EAM’s visit, the two sides also concluded an MoU on developing fisheries harbours in Sri Lanka. As may be recalled, after the end of Sri Lanka’s ethnic war in May 2009, India had promised to fund development projects for the war-affected fishing community, as it had done in the case of local farmers and others.

A Strategic Reset

The JWG meeting on fisheries is not to be seen in isolation but as another vertical of cooperation. This is so as the two sides have taken efforts to addressing each other’s specific concerns in the maritime domain in the shared Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Of immediate note is the MoU on Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. However, this too is the tip of the iceberg as the two sides have been cooperating on other avenues as well. The list is exhaustive and includes sharing of information on drugs, humans and weapons-smuggling, environmental protection and response during mid-sea distress and accidents, going beyond the traditional SOS-responding.

There is also scope and provision for upskilling and capacity-building. In the immediate past, Indian Navy Ship (INS) Sharda, an offshore patrol vessel (OPV), visited Sri Lanka, March 23-25, and was docked in Colombo harbour. As part of New Delhi’s capacity-building initiative, an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) of the Indian Navy accompanied INS Sharda and was involved in training exercises, for a week, to enhance the capacities of both the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) and Navy (SLN).

This was preceded by SLN participating in Sri Lanka–India Naval Exercise (SLINEX) between March 7 and 10 in the Bay of Bengal region. SLINEX is to be seen in continuation of the (Indian) Presidential Fleet Review (PFR) on February 18-22 and ‘Exercise Milan’ of the Indian Navy that followed the PRF. In between, the two littorals of the Palk Bay also participated in the fifth round of three-nation talks of National Security Advisors (NSA) of the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) that was held in Male, the capital of Maldives, on March 9-10, 2022. While Mauritius joined as the fourth full-fledged member at Male, Seychelles and Bangladesh, both IOR nations, continued their participation as observers.

This NSA meeting is important as the focus areas of bilateral cooperation between India and Sri Lanka and also of multilateral concerns among participant-nations are largely within the maritime domain. At Male, the CSC reiterated its commitments to a regional security system in the IOR. It is to be noted that the five pillars of cooperation, namely, Maritime Safety and Security, Counter-Terrorism and Radicalisation, Combating Trafficking and Transnational Organised Crime, Cyber Security, Protection of Critical Infrastructure and Technology, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, all carry a uniquely distinctive maritime orientation that is not explicitly stated.

This approach towards regional security architecture flows from the upgrading of the existing Maritime Security Agreement into a Maritime and Security Agreement, in the three NSAs’ fourth session at Colombo, in November 2020. The evolving architecture has distinguished itself from such other undertakings as it lies within the domain of the global commons and is not a regional politico-security grouping of states against any other member of the international community. The CSC meeting when taken along with the BIMSTEC Summit, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed virtually, is another reiteration of India’s stated position towards the IOR, which is guided by New Delhi’s SAGAR initiative (Security And Growth for All in the Region). Thus, India’s maritime security initiative is one of providing for the global commons for a common good within a regional structure. This approach does not carry with it any belligerent intent.

The Lankan Reset

The EAM visit to Sri Lanka, which was preceded by an equally significant stop-over in the southern Maldivian city of Addu, not only highlights the multi-faceted nature of bilateral ties with both nations, but also has to be seen in Sri Lanka recalibrating its external outlook.

Such a premise can be deduced from specific developments. The first is based on the frequency and the broad spectrum of engagement between the two nations over the past months. This includes President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ready acknowledgment of the Indian economic assistance, which New Delhi had extended without hesitation, even when some of the other traditional partners of Sri Lanka, like China, were perceived to be having second thoughts.

From an Indian perspective, the Sri Lankan willingness to open up to Indian investments, both by public and private sector entities, may have ended past perceptions of the nation’s pro-China tilt. The politico-strategic conclusion is that Sri Lanka is now equidistant between India and China on the investment front, even while responding to Indian security concerns and committing itself to a regional security architecture, that keeps out non-regional powers, and also disruptive tendencies like that of Pakistan, which has rendered SAARC moribund.

The second perspective flows from the multiple joint cooperation agreements that the two sides have inked both during this visit and also in the recent past, which is all but a continuing project.

These agreements, though strictly in the nature of commercial engagement or developmental assistance, also carry with them a degree of strategic implications. These points of engagement, be it the fisheries harbours, Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, hybrid-power projects or the redevelopment of the Trincomalee oil tanks farms, among others, do not carry with them any strategic connotations per se. The hybrid-power projects in three northern islets, namely, Nainativu, Neduntheevu and Delft, are apart from the renewable energy projects, also awarded to India’s private sector Adani Group, some months ago.

In context, the presence of an extra-regional power in such undertakings would have been an anathema to New Delhi’s security outlook and strategic orientation. As may be recalled, the hybrid power projects in Jaffna were originally awarded to China. Upon Delhi expressing its reservations on such an undertaking in the sensitive Palk Bay region, not far away from the Indian shores, Colombo has now sought Indian cooperation in the same. India’s private sector Adani group has since signed a deal for these projects. This is possibly the first time Sri Lanka has cancelled out a commercial deal with a Chinese entity and awarded the same to an Indian investor. It is to be recalled that the Adanis had earlier become the favoured partners for the joint development of Colombo Port’s Western Container Terminal (WCT), after the Rajapaksa government had pulled out the trilateral development of the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), which involved Japanese investments.

Through the past months, Indian public sector entities have signed joint sector agreements for the refurbishment of the oil tanks farms of Second World War vintage, which will involve multi-million-dollar investment. Two governmental entities are also jointly putting up a solar power project in Sampur, also in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province. As an aside, Sampur was selected originally for India’s public sector NTPC putting up a coal-fired power-project a decade and more ago, and was recast as an oil-fired unit. Now, NTPC is the Indian player for the solar project.

India’s centrality in IOR

On specifics in security terms, the maritime security deal between the two nations includes India gifting a floating dock and also a Dornier reconnaissance aircraft for maritime surveillance.

Though local media reports had mentioned the two in the passing even weeks ago, a new controversy arose after Dr Jaishankar’s visit, that neither side had publicly mentioned what tantamount to defence pacts. After a section of the political opinion and also strategic community claimed that the pacts would undermine the nation’s security, the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday, 29 March, denying such claims.

All these developments should be seen as a Sri Lankan initiative of being sensitive towards Indian concerns and being accommodative to Indian sensibilities. What seals the deal, at one level even if perceived to be weakly so, would be the Lankan initiative of hosting the fifth BIMSTEC Summit. This is because this regional forum fits well within India’s SAGAR initiative and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. As such, it can be argued that Colombo’s involvement in BIMSTEC along with the CSC is not only a tacit acknowledgment of Indian concerns in the region but also as Sri Lanka recognising the same. The new lease of life that the two regional forums have received in recent years is also a sign of Sri Lanka’s acknowledgement of India’s centrality in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

At another level, there is now a seeming meeting of minds between the Sri Lankan government and the TNA, as separate briefings to the Indian EAM showed. Though the two sides have a long way to go, this may possibly be the first time that the Sri Lankan government and the TNA, representing the Tamil ethnic interests after the conclusion of the LTTE war in May 2009, are speaking the same language. This is not only limited to the internal politics of the emerald island but also marks a shift in the overall outlook of the Lankan state and polity. This is because the ethnic question has been a bone of contention that has borne witness to significant blood-letting on all sides and by all sides.

All these developments come at a time when there is a growing but unevenly muted sentiment that covers all sections of the state, polity and society of the insincerity of Sri Lanka’s other traditional partners in their engagement with the island-nation. Nothing explains the no-tags-attached Indian sincerity as a responsible larger neighbour better than the way it volunteered pandemic-related medical assistance to all neighbours, of which Sri Lanka was only one, and later on, when the southern neighbour began reeling under unprecedented economic distress that has rendered even essential food and medical items unavailable, leave alone costly – not to mention fuel, which has become the life-blood of every nation, society and individuals.

Thus, the favourable opinion of India in the chaotic streets of Sri Lanka is not only a shout-out for a reset of Colombo’s external outlook but also for greater and favourable Indian attention towards the nation, especially during its current crisis that has rendered Forex dearer than ever.

For India, though, the momentum that has been generated over the past few months and or even years since the outbreak of the pandemic should not become a passing cloud but a beginning of resetting its engagement with its nearest and strategically-located island-neighbour, whose needs and the aspirations of its volatile population would remain for a long time.

(Sripathi Narayanan, Ph.D, is a Research Fellow with the Indian Council for World Affair (ICWA), New Delhi. He can be contacted on The views expressed are that of the author and does not reflect the position of ICWA).